As a kid, I knew something other kids didn’t: My parents were judging me. My grandparents were, too. They were judging me as mouthy or smart, annoying or erudite. The fact is, that sense of being monitored still governs my relationship with my parents and grandparents. I try to be good. (This is hard: I’m a 32-year-old married woman.) I call my mom every day. Once or twice a month, I mail letters to my grandma.
The local post office may never be my favourite place, but it reminds me of being a kid, when my mom would drag me along to run errands. It was always a pain, but there were always perks that my mother alchemized into our magical suburban landscape: a sample of American cheese at the grocery store, pretzels at Home Economist, DumDums at the bank.
Usually, the post office is a pleasant place, especially when my favourite clerk, Gary, is working. Gary has replaced his ID badge with an unflattering driver’s licence that some schmuck left behind. He has conversational Spanish, Farsi and Mandarin in his pocket, plus an occasional “Buon Giorno.” He has sharp titanium eyes that tolerate zero crap, which—I’m sure he’d want me to tell you—doesn’t mean that his jokes can’t be pretty crappy. But I’ve liked him ever since I ordered a sheet of celestial stamps. They looked like oil paintings—the planets of our galaxy—suspended in a midnight-blue sky.
“You know which one is my favourite?” he once asked, handing me a vellum envelope.
“Which?” I asked.
Oh Gary, if only you’d been on duty last week. The Del Valle station was a sweatbox—and a weird microcosm of life. People were wrestling with packing tape that wilted off the bobbin, drooping like jungle vines. A toddler was sliding down her mom’s sweaty, mosquito-bitten calf while I was trying not to hear the kid whine—it was all I could do as a good citizen. The heat was so bad that odd pockets of camaraderie were forming: A convivial office worker and a young skateboarder were sharing tokens of advice, and a whiskered old man and a spry sorority pledge were talking about the president.
There was one person between me and the window. She appeared to be in her 30s—my age. For a second, I thought we had the same strategy for managing the wait—scrolling through our phones—until she tapped a long magenta nail on the screen and started up a video. Its audio filled the post office: “Happy birthday to you—cha cha cha! Happy birthday to you—cha cha cha!”
Sweet god. The video lasted one minute and 13 seconds, and the woman watched every moment—every agonizing zoom-in on the candles—flicking away any text message that appeared. She was rapt and oblivious, aggravating the postal clerk (not Gary), who called her to the window three times. C’mon, I thought, take care of your adult business: Mail your mail. We’ve all seen a kid before. Well, apparently the woman could not get enough. She beamed at the screen, captivated by a pigtailed child leaning over a pink supermarket cake. The rest of the drill, you know: The girl huffed and puffed and the adults clapped.
When parenting becomes too overwhelming I kept hoping Gary would emerge from the back room, all nicotined up and sassy from a cigarette break, but there was neither secondhand smoke nor bawdy humour when it was my turn to send a package. I skulked home, on edge, preoccupied by the woman.
Maybe she was a mom; maybe not. Maybe she was an aunt or an older niece or a godparent or a really good friend who had to miss this child’s party. No matter who she was, I couldn’t figure out what would have compelled her to click on that video. What dawned on me was how frequently I catch myself being annoyed and even downright repulsed by parents.
This wasn’t a good trait, I decided. I wanted to understand why I was so bothered by people with offspring. “Happy birthday to you—cha cha cha!” surfed my brainwaves. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I never—ever—would have clicked on that video. Not in the privacy of my car or home. Not while killing time at a restaurant or bar. Not if it were my sister’s kid or my colleague’s kid or, frankly, my own kid.
The fact is, I judge parents—it’s a prejudice I’m working to overcome. I don’t want to think less of my relatives or friends for having children or my mom and dad for bringing me and my siblings into the world, but when I see adults whose lives seem ruled by kid business, I do. I judge.
I think of all the lame jokes (“Uranus”) most adults have had to endure, the menial social interactions they’ve perfected, the careers they’ve built, the artistic passions they’ve nurtured and the relationships they’ve flung themselves into with abandon and I’m sad. I’m sad that these people spend minutes of their day reliving “Happy birthday to you—cha cha cha.” I’m sad that these people answer questions like “How are you?” with statements about their kids.
It probably goes without saying that I’m ambivalent about having my own children. For years, I could think of no worse fate. With all the romantic, macabre gumption of a teenager, I’ve viewed motherhood as one gross tentacled threat, perilous to my coffee habit, my marriage, my mind, my vagina, my boobs, my hips, my pelvic floor, the joints in my hands, the shoes in my closet, my IQ, my vocabulary, my physical endurance and my professional ceiling.
Of course, the older I become, the more mothers I know—personally and from afar—and the more I’m able to see examples of happily caffeinated mamas, mothers in hot and sexy marriages, moms with badass careers and yogi mommies whose joints seem just fine. I know mothers who write and mothers who cook and mothers who stay at home but remain snarky, maybe bemused by their kids—that is, they stay themselves. I admire women who don’t dissolve into motherhood—maybe I even envy them.
A couple of years ago, I started catching myself wondering, Would it be nice to have a baby? Would I love it? Would I be able to stomach myself if I was impelled by that love? But no matter how much I try to convince myself that parenthood isn’t a scourge, I still keep cringing when people send me pictures of their kids or when friends tell me they want to steal every baby they meet or when my husband says he thinks we’d be good parents. “You would, but I wouldn’t,” I say. But he always sees beyond the limitations I find in myself.
Once, we went to the post office together and Gary asked where we met.
“A small school in the Midwest,” said my husband. “College.”
Gary looked at the two of us. “What did you major in? Other than her.”
Postal workers, bartenders, baristas, yoga teachers, janitors, maintenance men, pizza boys: People have been gathering me and my husband into their neighbourly fold for years. When we walk our dog down our strangely quiet street in L.A., it’s a bit like moving through a Richard Scarry picture book. One man tells us about his gallbladder surgery and shows us his scar. Another invites our dog to play with his. These are friendly greetings, regular and comfortable—the ways that people reach for and construct families every day.
Sometimes, I think that’s enough: the Garys of the world, or the circuit of individuals a human encounters living a life. Yes, some of them (hi, Simon) are children who say quirky things and want to steal my tartine at breakfast. Lately, though, the harsher my judgments of parents, the guiltier I feel. I’m sorry, I want to say to all the parents out there. I’d like to apologize to that woman with the magenta nails.
But even more than that, I want to say sorry to myself and to my husband. I’m sorry for not having what Gary has—the imagination to find fun in a job. I’m sorry I haven’t yet figured out how to live goodly, the way my mother showed me as a child: to run the necessary errands and celebrate the prizes. I’m sorry.